How U2 Almost Went Shark-Jumping With ‘Rattle and Hum’ 25 Years Ago
This month marks the 25th anniversary of U2 jumping the shark. If that doesn't ring a bell, maybe it's because the band is one of the few superstar acts ever to brave that kind of overexposure and ridicule and... jump back.
The theatrical film Rattle and Hum and its companion two-record set represented, to some, U2's coronation as the world's biggest and best rock band and, to others, their biggest boondoggle. Director Phil Joanou's earnest rockumentary was released by a major studio (Paramount) and got an unheard-of wide release (in over 1,000 theaters). Giant one-sheets were printed up depicting each of the band members in close-up. If you were waiting for a bus in November of 1988, chances were good that Larry Mullen Jr. had your back.
U2 seemed to be having a hard time staying on-message. Much of the Rattle and Hum music represented a back-to-roots move, with the band employing a gospel choir or B.B. King, or recording at Memphis' Sun Studios, to cement their interest in archival Americana. But there seemed to be more hubris than humility in the footage of their arena shows. And the massive rollout for both album and film didn't shout "back to basics." With that mixed a message being sent out, was it any wonder that the reaction was also all over the place?
Jon Pareles summed up the dismissive side in a New York Times album review ominously titled "When the Self-IMportance Interferes With the Music." "It's a mess," he wrote. "Bono starts the album with his foot in his mouth as he introduces 'Helter Skelter,' saying, ''This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealing it back.' He'd forgotten that U2 is not the Beatles — and he goes on to scramble the lyrics." He didn't like the roots-heavy originals any better, saying, "Unfortunately, blues and soul aren't U2's main roots.... 'Angel of Harlem,'' desperately dropping jazz names in a would-be tribute to Billie Holiday, comes across as overwrought and frantic... (Their) urgency has curdled on Rattle and Hum, where U2 insists that clumsy attempts at interpreting other people's music are as important as the real thing. What comes across in song after song is sincere egomania."
Examples of that line of thinking continue to pop up today in web pages like the one titled "Top 5 Awful Moments From U2's Rattle and Hum" (the film, in this case), which cites "the first two seconds of the movie" as the very first awful moment... those two seconds being the aforementioned Manson/Beatles quote. In commemorating another moment, the video cuts back and forth between U2 visiting Graceland and Spinal Tap doing pretty much the same thing in their movie. And as the No. 1 awful moment, the site offers a live version of "MLK": "Are you sh---ng me, movie? There is no band in history that could justify superimposing the lead singer's face on the image of Martin Luther King. No, U2, no!... I think it's very clear that U2 were pretty embarrassed by how they looked and acted in this movie, considering that they spent the next decade doing the exact opposite of this, going self-consciously artificial and arming themselves in hipster irony."
But not everyone knocked it. Robert Christgau (the "dean of rock critics") gave the album a better grade than he afforded most of U2's output (a generous B+), writing in the Village Voice, "This partly live double-LP is looser and faster than anything they've recorded since their first live mini-LP... A good half of the new stuff could knock over unsuspecting skeptics."